Archive for the ‘Chinese Culture’ Category

During the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839 to 1945 China was taken to its knees by foreign imperialists. The country was carved up, exploited, looted, raped and dethroned as the world’s greatest superpower. Only in 1949 when the communists triumphed over the Kuomintang in the civil war did China become whole again and begin the road back to its former greatness.

This is the Communist Party’s narrative of history. It’s the message that’s taught in textbooks and reinforced in the media, museums and movies every day throughout China. The elephant in the room that this narrative ignores of course is what happened for the first 30 years of communist China. And it also ignores the damage done by wholly domestic forces during the Century of Humiliation. The below charts show the relative death tolls inflicted on China by domestic and foreign forces over the past two centuries.

The first breaks down the major deadly events.

Getting an accurate count on these events is notoriously difficult*; especially when looking back to the 19th century. But even when we look at the range of estimates the picture is pretty obvious. The next chart shows when we combine these events into a simple Chinese vs. foreign-caused death comparison.

Here’s what it looks like when you just compare deaths caused by the Communist Party’s policies to the events of the Century of Humiliation (This graph doesn’t include the Communist Revolution).

In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined.

Now in many ways these graphs miss the point. Killings were only one of the grievances over the Century of Humiliation. The damage done to the Chinese psyche was caused more by foreigners stealing territory, imposing unequal treaties, looting cultural relics, exploiting Chinese people, and of course, the heinousness of Japan’s war crimes. But making other considerations goes both ways. During the party’s first 30 years it took the personal property and land of millions, destroyed countless historical relics, denounced and humiliated people for the crime of being intellectual, and enabled violence often every bit as vile as what the Japanese committed. But these death tolls simply provide one objective measurement of the damage caused to China, and they have some important implications.

The nationalism derived from the Century of Humiliation legitimizes the party’s rule and unites the people against a common enemy. China’s education system emphasizes the greatness of China’s 5,000 year civilization and in many ways promotes the idea that Chinese are exceptional people by nature. Take this question from a college entrance exam:

25) Since reform and opening up, China has successfully embarked on improving national conditions and adapted to the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the path of peaceful development is in line with China’s historical and cultural traditions. This is because______

  • A. The Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation
  • B. Peace and development is the trend of the times
  • C. In foreign exchange the Chinese people have always stressed “loving neighbors” and “finding common interests among diversity “
  • D. Chinese culture is a culture of peace. Longing for peace has always been a spiritual characteristic of the Chinese people [A,C, & D are “correct”]

China was the greatest nation in the world and only lost its footing because of incompetent leadership and war-warmongering foreigners who don’t share China’s peaceful values. The party kicked out the imperialists for good (according to its version of history) and still takes an aggressive stance on any whiff of foreign insult or interference with China. Therefore, the Communist Party is “The inevitable choice in China’s social development.

However, to acknowledge that much of what derailed the country in the first place was home-grown violence would take a lot of wind from that idea’s sails. So would the implication that the rescuer (the CCP) did far greater damage to the country than those it needed rescuing from.

These numbers also matter for low-level foreign relations. Chinese businessmen have been known to invoke the Century of Humiliation as leverage with Western counterparts in getting a better deal. You’ll sometimes even hear common street vendors use historical grievances to justify overcharging foreigners. There remains a strong sense that China is still poor because foreigners set China’s progress back a century. So when there’s a chance to balance the scales a little bit, some try to seize their due compensation.

In the coming months as the party begins its difficult power transition (which just became even more complicated) and tries to grab whatever legitimacy it can, we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors. It would be a travesty to deny the damage that foreign powers did to China in the past two centuries, but when talking about setting back China’s development, these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other “parties.”

*The main sources for these charts are listed on necrometetrics.com here and here and were compared to a few other independent estimates to get a reasonable range. Some of the “various internal uprisings” have very scant data with only a single (likely unreliable) number though and should be taken accordingly. 
 

Advertisements

Today marks “Learn from Lei Feng Day” in China, where citizens are reminded to follow the lessons of the young soldier who selflessly served the motherland through good deeds to strangers in the early 1960’s. This year the holiday seems to be receiving special attention. A slew of Lei Feng publications have been commissioned, which China Daily proclaimed will boost altruism. And CCTV has been airing several pieces on modern Lei Fengs, like Chinese workers in Africa.

Yesterday, one of these segments caught my eye about a “foreign Lei Feng. ” An American in his 40’s named David is teaching in rural Gansu and has been living in poor areas around China for the better part of two decades. The segment said that after getting hired at one school, David asked to be paid 1,000 yuan less each month so that his salary was the same as the Chinese teachers.

I dug a bit deeper and found David has been the subject of other TV segments celebrating his Lei Feng-ness. He wears shoes with holes in them, only has a backpack’s worth of worldly possessions, and during an interview when he was asked how much he usually scores during basketball games (he’s quite tall), he replied, “I don’t score very much. I just like to pass to other people. Watching them score makes me happy.”

And if the parallels to Lei Feng still aren’t obvious enough, David also hangs a Chinese flag wherever he lives and the “interests” portion of his résumé says “serving the people.”

David’s image seems almost cartoonishly contrived, but still, there’s no faking living in one of China’s poorest areas for over a decade for basically nothing. David’s M.O. seemed a bit familiar, so I dug even deeper on Google and sure enough, I found what was absent (almost certainly on purpose) from the CCTV bit: David is a devout Christian. One former student even blogged about how he and several others had been led to Christianity by David.

This is where Lei Feng and David are a world apart. Lei Feng’s legend says that he did his good deeds for the good of the nation. He praised the efforts of Mao and the party and helped others so that China may ultimately achieve Communism. But expecting people to sacrifice so much for nothing in return is why “learning from Lei Feng” is ultimately just as doomed to irrelevance as Communism itself.

But as David’s converts prove, religion has much more potential to make a splash. While on the surface people like David seem just like Lei Feng, they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching. And unlike socialist ideology, their scripture won’t easily be discredited by political or economic shifts.

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at Christianity’s potential in China and why so many young people are converting.

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

Yesterday I looked at the case of the Japanese cyclist, which raised the question of a whether there’s a Chinese inferiority complex when dealing with foreigners. Global Times ran a piece along these lines saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

Long ago China regarded all other countries as tributaries to itself and actually had a very blatant SUPERIORITY complex. In 1792, King George III of England sent a delegation to show the Qianlong emperor some British goods and persuade him to open China to greater trade with the West. The emperor responded with a sufficiently condescending refusal  that labeled foreigners barbarians and included passages like: “You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission.”

By cutting itself off from the ever- globalized and technological world, China was left vulnerable to the Opium Wars. Then the end of the 19th century brought the ultimate slap in the face. China was pummeled in the First Sino-Japanese War after the little “barbarian” island seized the opportunity China had brushed away. This was all part of the greater “Century of Humiliation,” which is oft-cited as the root of China’s inferiority complex with foreigners and hunger for international validation.

So many Chinese regard it as shameless historical kowtowing when foreigners are perceived to get special treatment – like in the case with the Japanese cyclist. But do we foreigners really receive elevated treatment above our Chinese peers?

Yes and no. Global Times was absolutely right in saying Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally, but it goes both ways. Some take the 19th-20th century inferiority outlook and worship foreign things and people. But quite a few take the opposite 18th century chauvinistic attitude.

I’m often invited to stranger’s homes, bought drinks, taken to dinner and offered high-paying jobs by virtue of having a foreign face. That I can’t deny.

But I’m also overcharged for everything (by normal merchants and government policy). I’m used as a pawn in guanxi-maneuvering and treated like a performing monkey. I live in constant fear that I’ll be booted out of the country if I flub up some bureaucratic procedure. A few people have tried to talk my girlfriend out of dating me because of the indignity it brings to China. And I’m reminded on a daily basis that my entire identity is nothing more than 外国人 (outside-country person). And if that’s all a Japanese visitor deals with, he’s very lucky.

Obviously most foreigners feel like they come out ahead in the end, or they wouldn’t still be here. But being a foreigner entails trade-offs many Chinese don’t recognize.

Today I read a very interesting piece in the Economic Observer giving a very different take on the Japanese cyclist. It said, “Is the problem that police neglect ordinary people or that ordinary people let themselves be neglected? Government is always blamed for discontent, and social problems are always ascribed to mismanagement by officials. But there are plenty of people acquiescing in this. […]Why do foreigners always get special treatment in China? Is it because, unlike many Chinese who are willing to put up with the way things are, they insist on making a fuss?”

In the graduate program I’m in currently in Beijing, we’re separated into a class of only foreigners and a few classes of only Chinese. A few weeks ago a Chinese classmate was told by an administrator that she wouldn’t get credit for a class she’d completed. It had been approved as an elective at the beginning of the semester but, at the end, the administrator (who my friend says hates her) arbitrarily decided the course wouldn’t count.

On the other side, we foreign students are accommodated at every turn. Administration holds regular meetings to hear our feedback on what we like and don’t like about the program. And if someone has beef with a teacher, they’ll usually get their way. On the surface this probably looks like blatant special treatment for foreigners.

But I remember last year many of the foreign and Chinese students had plans to go out together one night.  However, a few hours before, the Chinese students said their teacher had scheduled a last-minute meeting to go over pointless drivel…at 7:00 on a Friday night.

“So?” I said. “Tell the teacher tough shit. You already have plans.”

“No, she’s making us go,” my friend replied.

“Is she holding a gun to your head or something?” I pushed. “Tell her she needs to give you a respectful amount of notice if she expects you to show up.”

“We can’t,” my friend scoffed gently. “I’m sorry.”

The reason for the “special treatment” of foreign students became pretty clear. Another Chinese student would later talk about the administration saying, only half-jokingly,“They come and bully us because they’ve gotten so used to getting bullied by you foreigners.”

A few months ago I asked if this kind of innate submissiveness is traditional filial culture, or if it’s been hammered in from above by an authoritarian system. But wherever it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand.

A few days ago this story came out about a Japanese cyclist who was trying to ride around the world, only to have his bike stolen in China. When he described his plight on the web, netizens and Wuhan police snapped into action and his 13,000 yuan bike was recovered days later. Predictably, many Chinese weren’t so pleased with this happy ending.

It was a relief to see very few comments gratuitously invoke the Nanjing Massacre, but there were plenty of responses like, “A foreigner losing his bike and appear on television and become news, but what about when a local Chinese person loses his bike? Who would report that?”

People’s Daily urged local authorities to serve the needs of the common Chinese people in the same way that they did the Japanese cyclist. And Global Times ran piece saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

People’s Daily is absolutely right that authorities should extend much more effort for common Chinese. Since the media usually isn’t free to expose police ineptitude or corruption, many forces are lazy do-nothing outfits that won’t raise an eyebrow unless there’s something in it for them.

But the anger over this particular story has gotten a bit out of hand. First of all, the way the story unfolded was very tongue-in-cheek. Bored netizens found their cheeky cause of the day and managed to deliver on their largely satirical mission – which is what made it newsworthy.

Also, this wasn’t just an everyday bike theft. This was a foreign traveler who lost his means of transportation an ocean away from home. I often travel in this way and dread the day when my bike gets stolen in the middle of nowhere. You can’t just go to the local bike shop and pick up a new one. In Nanjing it took me weeks to find and soup up a bike capable of long-distance travel. And the logistics of just returning home would be a nightmare. There’s awkward-to-carry gear, unexpected costs, and who knows how many legs of travel would be required.

If I heard a foreign cycler was travelling through Kansas City and had his bike stolen, I’d expect police to devote more attention to the case than a standard local theft. He’s alone and stranded in a strange land. The bike’s importance is much more than its cash value.

Still, there are plenty of Chinese in much more desperate situations that go completely ignored. But I don’t think the case of the Japanese man paints a very realistic picture of foreign vs. local treatment. In Nanjing I once had a 2,000 yuan electric scooter stolen. When I reported it to the police they filled out the standard paperwork and went about ignoring it just like they did with the Chinese.

Yes, foreigners in desperate need of help from authorities probably are more likely to get it in most situations; but that’s not really unique to China. Police are typical human beings. A person in trouble who’s alone and can’t speak the language or navigate the cultural complexities will usually elicit more sympathy than a local with family, friends, and a grasp on how things are done.

But are foreigners given special treatment in general by Chinese because of an inferiority complex?

We’ll look at that tomorrow…

 

 

I’ve just returned from spending the Chinese New Year with my girlfriend’s family in Shandong (apologies for the lack of recent updates). A few weeks ago I wrote on China’s marriage trap and over the holiday I got to experience first hand a little bit of why Chinese often rush into marriage.

This was my third Chinese New Year at her home. As is Chinese custom and social assumption, the first time I went was essentially signaling our intent to get married. The idea that I was a just a foreigner with no place else to go for the holiday wasn’t something that crossed many people’s minds. The second year, things were set in stone when one uncle went so far as to host a semi-official “welcome to the family” dinner (unbeknownst to me ahead of time). Keep in mind, we never said a word to anyone about marriage plans. This year, everyone’s attitude was basically, “What the hell are you waiting for?”

My girlfriend’s family is about the most liberal you could ever ask for. Nobody ever gave her one bit of grief about dating a foreigner and we even sleep in the same bed while staying at her parents’ place (completely shocking to most Chinese friends I tell). But that didn’t make us immune to the marriage pressure. There was no playful insinuation or beating around the bush. Every relative’s and friend’s home we visited, we were asked directly, “When are you getting married?”

I would just cop-out with the always useful “我听不懂” (I don’t understand) card and make my girlfriend answer. She’d just say we didn’t have plans yet – that I’m still finishing school and there’s no reason to rush, which is true. That was good enough for most, but not all. We went to visit a friend of the family who’s my girlfriend’s “godmother” and made a critical error.

Godmother: When will you two get married?

Girlfriend: We’re not sure.

Godmother: Then when will you have a baby?

Girlfriend: Haha, I’m not even sure I want a baby.

Godmother: (Jaw drops) But you must have a baby.

Girlfriend: Haha, I don’t know.

Godmother: You don’t have to have it right away. You can just be married for a year and then have it.

Girlfriend: We’ll see.

Godmother: You don’t even have to plan it. Just stop using birth control and see what happens.

…And that’s about the point I decided I wouldn’t be returning to her hometown until I put a ring on her finger.

There seems to be a common fear in China that if you wait one day past your 30th birthday to have a baby, it’ll have disastrous health effects for the mother or child. So now that we’re certain we won’t be breaking up, it’s just baffling to some that we aren’t actively planning the wedding and fixing to get knocked up on the wedding night.

For us it’s not a big deal. We’re strong-willed and most of the family is open-minded enough that we don’t feel tempted to bow to this pressure. We’re all but certain we’ll get married eventually anyways, so it’s easy to brush off. But it’s easy to see how many Chinese just throw in the towel and jump into a life they’re not ready for.

When I first moved to Beijing from Nanjing, I hit a snag at the police bureau. I’d just returned from a trip back home and had two days to get a student visa before my old working one expired. But it turned out my school had given me one wrong document (which was nearly identical to the correct one). I asked if they could let it slide but obviously that was out of the question. So I asked if I could pay to extend my current visa; something I’d done before and knew I could still do. Here’s how that went:

Visa woman: You think this is a game? You can just get whatever visa you feel like?

Me: No, there was just a mix-up with the school so I want to extend my current visa until I can get it straightened out with them. I’ve done it before.

Visa woman: No, you’ll just need to go back to the US and apply through the Chinese embassy.

Me: Are you fucking kidding me?! I just got back from the US. I’ve extended my visa before, I know I can do it.

Visa woman:  (Shakes head dismissively, waves me off and refuses to say another word)

I began to understand why there was a bulletproof glass barrier between her and me. I made some calls and got my school to hash it out, but I later learned I was totally right about extending my current visa.  The visa woman was ready to make me go thousands of dollars and a few weeks out of my way just so she could avoid two minutes of extra work.

She’s the disinterested bureaucrat who’s paid to sit there and she’ll be damned if she’s going to do anything more. She’ll abuse her miniscule authority to create shortcuts for fixers and anyone else willing to make it worth her while, but those expecting her to just do her job are about to get their day ruined. If you’ve ever tried to get something done in one of China’s infinite state-run monopolies, you’ve met her.

But I went to open a bank account a few days later and discovered a little invention that could revolutionize China in the most profound way since Reform & Opening Up:

It’s a customer service rating machine. After your interaction, you simply press your level of satisfaction and the total results affect the employee’s job. By no coincidence, the service at the bank was fantastic.

I had similar results when I called to get my internet hooked up. The first two reps I called talked to me like I was a moron for wasting their time in trying to patronize their company. But the third couldn’t have been more helpful. I found out why when, after the conversation, there was an automated feature that asked me to hit a number corresponding with my satisfaction level.

Imagine if every bureaucrat, secretary, doctor, police officer, petitions office worker, train ticket clerk, inspector, etc. had incentives tied to meeting a certain quota on one of these machines. Customer service and efficiency would skyrocket and petty malfeasance would drop precipitously.

After the scheme’s success is proven, who knows, maybe these machines could even be put in little booths every 4 or 5 years and be tied to people in even higher positions of power.

I call on the government to begin immediate production on tens of millions of these machines. I can’t imagine a better investment for the country’s continued development.

 

Last October the story of little Yue Yue captivated China for several weeks. In the search for answers as to why 18 bystanders ignored a dying toddler, Peng Yu was frequently cited. He was the young Nanjing man who, in 2006, allegedly helped a fallen old woman to the hospital who turned around and sued him, saying he had knocked her down. This case has been cited again and again, even before Yue Yue, as the reason Chinese don’t lend assistance to hurt strangers.

But today a story came out that, if true, is kind of a bombshell. It says Peng Yu was guilty all along.

China.org.cn reported

Now it has been revealed that Peng lied at the court hearing and he had, in fact, knocked Xu down, Outlook Weekly magazine reported yesterday.

Peng admitted accidently pushing Xu as he was getting off a bus, and agreed to pay her 10,000 yuan compensation in a settlement reached in March 2008. The two sides withdrew their appeals and came to an agreement that they would not disclose details of the case, Liu Zhiwei, director of Nanjing Political and Legal Affairs Commission, told the magazine.

Liu said he was disclosing the agreement because the case had been seriously misunderstood and was said to have been a turning point in moral standards.

Liu said he had the consent of Peng and Xu to do so, the magazine said.

Just like scores of people on Weibo, I was pretty skeptical on reading this. There have been numerous incidents of non-assistance in past five years allegedly inspired by Peng Yu. Why come out with this now? Especially three months AFTER all the hoopla about Yue Yue. The knee-jerk reaction was that the government probably stepped in to “maintain social stability” by discrediting the Peng Yu case.

But in retrospect, everyone did seem to take for granted that Peng Yu was innocent from the beginning. In Peng Yu’s original version of the incident, he was the first to get off a bus and saw the fallen woman. He accompanied her to the hospital, gave her 200 yuan and stayed with her until after her treatment – saying she didn’t need to repay the cash. The woman said that he had knocked her down while getting off the bus.

Suppose you hadn’t been previously been influenced by the presumption that the woman was an extortionist. There were no other witnesses, so it’s her word against his. I wouldn’t hold Peng liable in the absence of hard evidence, but I’d still probably suspect he did it. (Of course, hindsight is 20/20 though)

The judge initially ruled that “according to common sense” it was very possible Peng was guilty and that he would have just left the hospital after dropping the woman off  “according to what one would normally do in this case.” So the judge ordered him to pay 40% of the medical costs (45,000 yuan).

According to the new information released this week, during the appeals process a year later the two settled with a non-disclosure agreement for 10,000 yuan.  Nothing here seems too unbelievable. I wouldn’t have awarded the money originally, but then I come from the American legal system. The Chinese system is much more egalitarian and prone to favor the weaker party.

I recall reading a case where a flower pot fell from an apartment complex and hit a woman, but no one could determine whose room it came from.  Rather than leaving the injured woman to fend for herself financially, the judge ordered all 30 of the tenants who might be responsible to share the medical costs equally. I’ve frequently mentioned this case to Chinese friends; the majority of whom agreed with the verdict.

So if Peng Yu was probably guilty (even though there wasn’t physical evidence), the judge’s ruling wasn’t so outrageous by Chinese legal standards. But the media has run with the story framed from Peng Yu’s perspective again and again. And the fact that the settlement was a year later and confidential just allowed the story to keep running.

Now however, someone involved with the case apparently finally felt the need to make it public. But that person wasn’t Peng Yu. I just wonder where he’s been this whole time. Surely he’s noticed that he’s become somewhat of a folk hero from his name being mentioned by so many over the past five years as the reason for bystander ambivalence.

I’m not totally convinced the new revelation wasn’t crafted by higher powers, but either way, now that his non-disclosure agreement has been voided, Peng Yu has some explaining to do.